Colonel Benjamin Fletcher, who was sent over from England as the next Governor, arrived in New York in the summer of 1692. His rule is chiefly memorable for the founding of Trinity Church and for the encouragement which he gave to piracy. These strangely differing activities were both obnoxious to the Dutch burghers, who were almost as strongly opposed to the Church of England as to that of Rome, and who suspected the Governor of conniving at the practice of piracy or at least of closing his eyes to the source of the doubloons of Spain, the louis d’or of France, and other strange coin which at this epoch had begun to circulate together with ivory and sandalwood in the little town at the tip of Manhattan Island.
In one sense Fletcher cannot be held responsible for the existence of piracy in the colony or on the high seas. The institution was as old as navigation. Moreover the issuance of letters of marque in the war with Spain had legalized privateering, which was so near akin to piracy that it was often hard to distinguish between the two. Even royalty was not above accepting a share in the questionable spoils of the sea, as in the well-known case of Queen Elizabeth and the booty which Drake brought home.
It is easy, therefore, to guess the source of the Eastern rugs, the carved teakwood furniture, and stuffs from India looms which adorned the houses of the rich men of New York. On the streets pirate captains were pointed out as celebrities. One of them, Edward Coates, presented Madam Fletcher with jewels, silks, and cashmere shawls. Thomas Tew, another “filibustier,” is described by a contemporary as a slight, dark man about forty years of age, who wore a uniform consisting of a blue jacket bordered with gold lace and short trousers of white linen covering his legs to the knee, below which came embroidered stockings. Around his neck he wore a chain of beaten gold and from his belt protruded a dagger’s hilt set with sparkling jewels.
These picturesque pirates and privateers swaggered about the taverns in the shadow of the Stadt-Huys or lounged along the wharves at the harbor. Everywhere they were the center of attention, and their tales of adventure were listened to with the most eager interest. But these adventurers in the end pushed things so far that the Government in England found itself obliged to take vigorous action against them. James expressly instructed the provincial Governors Andros and Dongan to suppress “all pirates and sea rovers,” for they had become so bold in their activities along the Spanish Main that lawful trading was languishing and merchants were in terror.
Many of the adventurers in the West Indies having been originally engaged in the honest business of boucanning, or smoking fish and meat after the manner of the Carib savages, they and their piratical comrades were generally known in Europe as “buchaniers” or “buccaneers.” By the Hollanders they were named “zee rovers”; by the French “flibustiers,” which was only the Frenchman’s way of pronouncing “freebooter.” In 1652 Samuel Sewall established in Boston a free mint, which attracted the pirates to that town, where they could bring their booty in gold and silver and have it safely dropped into the melting-pot beyond the reach of either discovery or recovery. In 1687 Sir Robert Holmes was sent with a squadron to the West Indies to put a stop to the nefarious trade of the freebooters, and in the next year Nicholson imprisoned at Boston several pirates whose leader was “one Petersen.” These activities on the part of the authorities had the effect of driving the “zee rovers” from the Caribbean to the East Indies for their enterprises and from Boston to New York for their market.
Sea commerce at this time had so far outstripped a naval power adequate to protect it that piracy grew more and more profitable, and many a respected merchant held private stock in some more than dubious sea venture. The coast of Madagascar was a meeting place for pirates and merchantmen, and there Oriental stuffs, gold, and jewels were exchanged for rum or firearms, and the merchant vessel returned to New York, where her goods were sold cheaply and no questions were asked. One ship sailing from New York laden with Jamaica rum, Madeira wine, and gunpowder returned with a cargo of slaves and East India goods, and the voyage was reported to have cleared a net profit of thirty thousand pounds.
The scandal of “adventuring” continued to grow, and in 1695 Peter De la Noy wrote thus to the home government:
We have a parcell of pirates in these parts which (people) call the Red Sea men, who often get great booty of Arabian Gold. His Excellency gives all due encouragement to these men, because they make all due acknowledgements to him; one Coats, a captain of this honorable order presented his Excellency with his ship, which his Excellency sold for eight hundred pounds and every one of the crew made him a suitable present of Arabian Gold for his protection; one Captain Twoo who is gone to the Red Sea upon the same errand was before his departure highly caressed by His Excellency in his coach and six horses, and presented with a gold watch to engage him to make New York his port at his return. Twoo retaliated the kindnesse with a present of Jewells; but I can’t learn how much further the bargain proceeded; time must shew that…. After this all you will perhaps wonder when I tell you that this man’s bell rings twice a day for prayers and that he appears with a great affectation of piety; but this is true, and it is as true that it makes him only more ridiculous, not more respected.
Not only were the buccaneers terrorizing the West Indies, the Red Sea, and the Madagascar coast, but according to the Albany Records of 1696 “pirates in great numbers infest the Hudson River at its mouth and waylay vessels on their way to Albany, speeding out from covers and from behind islands and again returning to the rocky shores, or ascending the mountains along the river to conceal their plunder.”
The Government in England now prepared to take vigorous measures. It desired to fit out an armed force to suppress the buccaneers; but as all the regular navy was needed in the war with France it was decided to organize a stock company in which the King, the Duke of Shrewsbury, Lord Chancellor Somers, the Earls of Bellomont, Oxford, and Romney, Robert Livingston, and others took shares, for the purpose of fitting out a privateer vessel to fight the pirates and at the same time to win some profit for themselves.
The Adventure-Galley, carrying thirty guns and manned by over one hundred sailors, was fitted out and entrusted to the command of William Kidd, a sea-captain of New York who chanced to be in London at the time and who was warmly recommended by Robert Livingston to Lord Bellomont, who had been appointed to succeed Fletcher as Governor of New York. He was well known as a bold and skillful sailor, and a man of wealth and repute in New York, and in his marriage certificate he was called “Captain William Kidd, Gentleman.”
The plan finally formed was that Kidd with a privateer furnished with a letter of marque and a special commission from the King should cruise about in search of the pirates and capture them. In pursuance of the scheme Kidd set sail on the Adventure-Galley and reached New York in the spring of 1696. He set up placards all over the town asking for recruits, with the result that a motley crew of adventurers rushed to take ship in this strange new enterprise. At this time Kidd was living in one of the handsomest houses in New York, on what is now Liberty Street. Before this, in 1691, he had married the widow of a fellow sea-captain, a woman of great respectability, by whom he had one daughter, and he was known far and wide as a solid and trustworthy merchant.
His venture seemed bulwarked by every guarantee; but even at that epoch there were not wanting those who predicted strange things for the Adventure-Galley. Few, however, foresaw any events as strange as those which actually occurred. After cruising along the American coast without achieving the capture of any pirate ships Kidd set sail for the Red Sea and reached the coast of Madagascar in the fall of 1697. Here again he found no trace of the corsairs, who had probably been forewarned of his coming.
Kidd then took on water and provisions and proceeded to the coast of Madagascar. Still no pirates. Water and provisions were running low, and the crew threatened mutiny unless they were allowed to take up the business of piracy on their own account. Kidd thereupon decided to yield, and the Adventure-Galley began by capturing several vessels owned by the Great Mogul, as well as some ships sailing under French colors. In December, 1698, Kidd captured an East India ship named the Quedagh Merchant. The Adventure-Galley being in bad condition, Kidd set the crew of the Quedagh Merchant on shore, took possession of the ship, burned his old one, and set sail in his new vessel for Madagascar.
In spite of their rich spoils, the mutineers remained sullen, and many deserted. The men’s discontent led to an altercation with William Moore, a gunner, in the course of which Kidd hit him on the head with a bucket. The resulting injury proved fatal to Moore and ultimately resulted in disaster for Kidd. After leaving Madagascar the pirate captain sailed for the West Indies, and it must have been with a sinking heart that he received the news which awaited him there. The piracy of the Adventure-Galley was already known in England, and a committee of Parliament had been appointed to inquire into the whole affair. Free pardon for acts committed before May 1, 1699, was offered by royal proclamation to all pirates who would surrender. But an ominous exception was made in this proclamation of mercy: Avery, a notorious buccaneer, and William Kidd were not included.
The cause of this exclusion from grace is not far to seek. It was not that Kidd was a sinner above all others; but that he had involved great personages from the King down, and that the Tories were making capital out of the connection between prominent Whig statesmen and the misdeeds of Captain Kidd. The outlaw now determined on a course which in a righteous cause might well have been called bold but which under the circumstances could only be described as brazen. He bought at the island of Hispaniola a small sloop which he loaded with gold coin, gold dust, gems, and other booty and, with what remained of his crew, he set sail for New York. Thus at San Domingo the Quedagh Merchant, with her fifty guns and her valuable cargo, was abandoned. Her fate has continued a mystery to this day, and from time to time the search for the lost booty is still suggested and inaugurated by enthusiasts for adventure or seekers for gold.
When Kidd drew near New York he found that the Earl of Bellomont had gone to Boston, and he resolved to follow the Governor to Massachusetts. Much uncertainty surrounds his course at this time. It is said that he sailed up Long Island Sound, stopped at Gardiner’s Island, and buried a chest of treasure there, that he presented Mrs. Gardiner with brocades embroidered with gold threads and dropped jewels into his wine. It is said that he succeeded in reaching his wife by a letter, asking her to meet him at Block Island. Rumor has it that from Narragansett Bay he communicated with Bellomont and informed his lordship that he, William Kidd, was on board a sloop with ten thousand pounds’ worth of goods and that he was entirely guiltless of the piracy with which he was charged. It is said that Bellomont replied that, if Kidd could establish his innocence, he might count on the Governor’s protection.
Amid all these rumors there seems good evidence that Kidd landed in Boston in July and had the effrontery to offer the Governor a gift of jewels for Lady Bellomont. With the approval of the Council Bellomont accepted the gift and handed the gems to a trustee as evidence in the case against Kidd. The Earl of Bellomont, being a man of sterling integrity, was naturally sensitive as to his apparent complicity in the Kidd piracy, refused any further parley, and sent the buccaneer to England to stand his trial there.
Kidd was held in London for several months pending the collection of evidence against him, and his trial for piracy and the murder of William Moore finally began at the Old Bailey in the spring of 1701. From this point we have the original documents of the state trials and a complete record of the evidence for and against Kidd. Bellomont is eliminated as a factor, and it becomes a case of the Crown against Captain William Kidd and a number of others, for murder and piracy upon the high seas.
However we may feel as to Kidd’s guilt in the matter of piracy, we can but realize that, according to the standards of modern times, he was not given a fighting chance for his life. He was detained in Newgate Prison and denied all counsel until he had pleaded “guilty” or “not guilty.” In spite of all his protests he was brought to trial on the first indictment for murder, incidentally the least certain of his offenses. The jury being sworn, the clerk proceeded with the first indictment for murder and declared that “the jurors of our sovereign Lord the King do upon their oath present that William Kidd, late of London, married, not having the fear of God before his eyes; but being moved and seduced by the Devil … did make assault in and upon one William Moore … and that the aforesaid William Kidd with a certain wooden bucket, bound with iron hoops, of the value of eight pence, which he the said William Kidd then and there held in his right hand, did violently, feloniously, voluntarily, and of his malice aforethought beat and strike the aforesaid William Moore in and upon the right part of the head of him, the said William Moore then and there upon the high sea in the ship aforesaid and within the jurisdiction of England.”
Several sailors testified to the circumstances of the murder, that Kidd had called the gunner “a lousy dog” and Moore had replied: “If I am a lousy dog you have made me so. You have brought me to ruin and many more.” At this, Kidd’s temper being roused, he struck Moore with the bucket, and the gunner died the next day as a result of the blow. Considering the severity of treatment of mutinous sailors permitted to ships’ officers at that time, there is little reason to think that under ordinary circumstances Kidd would have been adjudged guilty of murder for a blow struck in hot blood and under provocation; but the verdict was certain before the trial had begun. The jury after an hour’s consultation brought in a verdict of guilty, and Kidd was remanded to Newgate Prison to await trial for piracy.
This second trial took place in May, 1701, and included, beside the Captain, nine other mariners charged with piracy, in that “they feloniously did steal, take and carry away the said merchant ship Quedagh Merchant and the apparel and tackle of the same ship of the value of four hundred pounds of lawful money of England, seventy chests of opium, besides twenty bales of raw silk, a hundred bales of calico, two hundred bales of muslins, two hundred and fifty bales of sugar and three bales of romels.”
Kidd’s defense was that the ships captured were sailing under French passes and therefore lawful prizes according to the terms of his commission. These passes, he said, had been delivered into Bellomont’s hands. But the Court made no effort to procure these passes or to inquire further into the matter. The jury was out for a short time only and brought in their verdict against or for the mariners separately. All but three were found guilty. In addressing them the Court said: “You have been tried by the laws of the land and convicted and nothing now remains but that sentence be passed according to the law. And the sentence of the law is this: You shall be taken from the place where you are and be carried to the place from whence you came and from thence to the place of execution and there be severally hanged by your necks until you be dead. And may the Lord have mercy on your souls!”
Captain Kidd was hanged at Execution Dock on May 23, 1701. Thus ended the most famous pirate of the age. His career so impressed the popular imagination that a host of legends sprang up concerning him and his treasure ship, while innumerable doleful ballads were written setting forth his incredible depravity. Yet it is curious to consider that, had he died a few years earlier, he would have passed away as an honored citizen of New York and would have been buried with pomp and circumstance and the usual laudatory funeral oration.